5 People Obama Could Pardon in Addition to the Turkey
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A year ago this time, when President Obama issued presidential mercy to one lucky turkey, he hadn’t exercised this presidential pardon a single time that year to spare a human being facing prison.
This year, his record was slightly improved. In 2013, President Obama pardoned 17 people. But those few pardons did not change his record of the lowest clemency rate in modern history. President Obama has the power under the U.S. Constitution to grant both pardons, which revoke an existing conviction, and commutations, which shorten an inmate’s sentence. Given the swell of recent data about overly draconian federal prison sentences, it is particularly remarkable that Obama has only commuted one sentence in his years as president. This is not for a lack of compelling cases. Clemency reform may very well be the next criminal justice reform item on the White House agenda, after recent moves to seek shorter sentences for some drug offenders and avert prosecutions of medical marijuana participants. With or without reform to the process for reviewing applications, here are five people Obama could grant clemency to today, each of whom represent an entire category of U.S. prisoners:
1. Fifty-five years in prison on a marijuana charge. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke on his behalf on the Senate floor. More than 100 prominent figures including former prosecutors and judges sent a letter to the White House imploring his commutation. And a Change.org petition gathered tens of thousands of signatures. But Weldon Angelos still sits in jail on a 55-year prison sentence for three small marijuana infractions and the possession of firearms that were not used or brandished. He was a young dad and aspiring music producer when he was sentenced in 2004. As in so many other cases, the judge who sentenced him called the mandatory minimum term “unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” and went on to point out that defendants have received shorter sentences for hijacking planes, rape, and murder. Drug offenders make up almost half of the bloated federal prison population, which has spiked 790 percent since 1980. And Weldon is among those sitting in jail for marijuana offenses, even as many states move to legalize the substance.
2. Botched by the Pardon Attorney and still waiting. Perhaps no one better stands as a symbol of the broken clemency system than Clarence Aaron. Aaron was a nominal player in a drug deal who is serving a triple life sentence for introducing two dealers to one another in a cocaine deal. It was the amount of drugs and money involved in the overall deal that dictated his sentence, and because several other defendants snitched away their charges, Aaron was handed the highest sentence of all. Aaron’s sentence was the result of wheeling and dealing by more experienced players who made Aaron the scapegoat. But it also resulted from a “conspiracy amendment” to federal mandatory minimum law that allows the lowest person in a so-called drug conspiracy to receive the maximum sentence. Aaron has twice applied to have his federal sentence commuted. He was the subject of a groundbreaking exposé about racially disparate commutations in ProPublica. And an inspector general’s report even found that the U.S. Pardon Attorney mishandled his application. But still he waits.
3. Life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. In the years after Jesse Websterdropped out of school in ninth grade to help his mother pay the bills in the south side of Chicago, he became involved in a cocaine deal that was aborted before drugs ever changed hands. After hearing he was wanted for questioning, he turned himself in, and was convicted of possession, conspiracy, and filing false tax returns, solely on the basis of testimony by his co-defendants. He declined to become an informant in exchange for a plea deal, worried that it would put his family members at risk. While his co-defendants received less than five years each for cooperating with the government, Webster, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to life without parole by a judge who said the punishment was too high, but whose hands were tied by a mandatory minimum sentence. Webster has since completed his GED, taught himself skills, and counseled other inmates. But no matter what he does, life without parole means no chance to ever see life outside of prison. The judge who sentenced Webster wrote a letter in support of his commutation, as did the prosecutor who charged him. Webster is one of more than 3,200 people serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses, according to recent ACLU data. The number of individuals serving out the harshest U.S. sentence short of execution has quadrupled since 1982.